NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — In mid-April, members of the Tennessee GOP Executive Committee voted to take three candidates off the ballot for the Congressional District 5 seat. Now one of those candidates is suing to contest that decision.
Republican Robby Starbuck filed suit against GOP executive director Scott Golden, the Tennessee Republican Party, Tennessee election coordinator Mark Goins and Secretary of State Tre Hargett. The party also kicked off Morgan Ortagus and Baxter Lee.
Tennessee law gives the discretion to the committee to validate candidates through a definition of "bona fide" Republicans. As it stands, those who are "bona fide" have to have participated in three of the last four primaries as a Republican. If not, someone can vouch to party officials that a person should go on the Republican ballot.
"Chair Scott Golden and members of the executive committee have offered a series of conflicting explanations for the basis of the decision — all of which are inconsistent with federal and state law as well as the party's own bylaws and have nothing to do with Mr. Starbuck’s status as a bona fide Republican," the suit stated. "That was the only question the party was empowered by Tennessee law to answer and the only basis upon which Tennessee lawfully could terminate Mr. Starbuck’s candidacy. And yet, the state unquestioningly carried out the party's unlawful order to remove a qualified candidate from the ballot."
The seat — held by now retiring Democrat Jim Cooper — has caused a stir in political circles after the Tennessee legislature redrew the lines for the district, which includes a portion of Nashville. As it stands now, the map carves Davidson County's current District 5 into three different districts.
The new District 5 takes shape with six counties: south Davidson, east Williamson, west Wilson, pieces of Lewis, parts of Maury and a slice of Marshall County.
Starbuck alleges the removal of himself and Ortagus is connected to former Speaker of the House Beth Harwell's run for the seat.
"One of the informal explanations for the party's decision by members of the executive committee pressed for answers by incredulous Republican voters — there has been no official statement by the TRP of a reasoned basis for its decision — is that the decision was compelled by state law. Specifically, a law advanced by Sen. Frank S. Niceley, who has made no secret of his desire to use this new law to help the candidacy of Ms. Harwell, his friend, and block Mr. Starbuck and Ms. Ortagus from the election because he considers them 'carpetbaggers.'"
Starbuck is registered to vote in Williamson County, and the suit listed activities — such as appearing on Fox News and making contributions to Republican causes — that should have garnered his stay on the ballot. The suit doesn't explicitly list his voter history in Tennessee or what years he voted in primaries to reach the qualification standards. The suit stated he is an active member of the Davidson County Republican Party.
It also stated he failed to vote in either of the 2020 statewide Tennessee primaries, but was a registered Republican in California for six years.
The suit showed in its exhibits letters to Golden that members of different local Republican parties would vouch for him, which is allowed under state law.
The suit asked that the party reinstate him on the ballot and seeks damages from the party and Golden.
Voters can choose a candidate on the primary ballot in August.